Does "The Twelve Days of Christmas" Have a Hidden Meaning?

3 French Hens
 Hawley Wright / Getty Images

A viral message circulating since the 1990s purports to reveal the true origin and secret meaning of the well-known Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" — namely that it was composed as an "underground catechism song" for persecuted Catholics living under Protestant rule in England hundreds of years ago.

Description: Viral text / Email
Circulating since: 1990s
Status: Dubious (details below)

Email text contributed by a reader, December 21, 2000:

12 Days of Christmas

There is one Christmas Carol that has always baffled me. What in the world do leaping lords, French hens, swimming swans, and especially the partridge who won't come out of the pear tree have to do with Christmas? Today I found out at a ladies luncheon its origin. From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics.

It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember.

  • The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.​
  • Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments​
  • Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.​
  • The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.​
  • The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.​
  • The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.​
  • Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit - Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.​
  • The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.​
  • Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit-Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control.​
  • The ten lords a-leaping were the ten commandments.​
  • The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.​
  • The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.
  • So there is your history for today. This knowledge was shared with me and I found it interesting and enlightening and now I know how that strange song became a Christmas Carol... so pass it on if you wish.


Although no one is quite sure exactly how old the lyrics to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are, they were already considered "traditional" by the time the rhyme was first published around 1780. The theory that it originated as an "underground catechism song" for oppressed Catholics appears to be quite modern, however. It was first proposed by Canadian English teacher and part-time hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar in an article entitled "How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas," published in 1979. McKellar expanded on the idea in a monograph for the scholarly journal The Hymn in 1994.

The notion was further popularized by a Catholic priest, Fr. Hal Stockert, who summarized the theory in an article he wrote in 1982 and posted online in 1995. Unlike McKellar, who cited no sources and said his first intimations of a hidden meaning in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" came from personal conversations with elderly Canadians with roots in northern England, Stockert claimed he had happened upon the information in "primary documents," including "letters from Irish priests, mostly Jesuits, writing back to the motherhouse at Douai-Rheims, in France, mentioning this purely as an aside." Those sources remain unverified.

However it came about, Stockert and McKellar published virtually identical interpretations of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Only the latter admitted how personal, even speculative, the process was. "I can at most report what this song's symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades," McKellar wrote in 1994. Stockert offered no such disclaimers.

The theory has found little support among historians, who dispute not only the interpretation but the premises underlying it. "This was not originally a Catholic song, no matter what you hear on the Internet," said music historian William Studwell during a 2008 interview with the Religion News Service. "Neutral reference books say this is nonsense." One dead giveaway, Studwell explained, is that the lyrics are both secular and playful. "Every religious song, every religious carol has at least depth in it, something that has some spirituality in it. This is frothy, light and frothy."

A Genuine Urban Myth

Historian Gerry Bowler, the author of The Encyclopedia of Christmas, called the McKellar-Stockert theory a "genuine urban myth," and explained why in an email quoted on in December 2000:

There are a number of clues that give it away as a tall tale but most important is the fact that none of the supposedly secret meanings is distinctly Catholic. None of the twelve codes would have been considered anything but normal Christian orthodoxy by the Protestants which ruled England at the time, so it would not need to have been imparted clandestinely. If any of the meanings had been about the special status for Catholics accorded by Mary during her brief rule (1553-1558) or the theology of the Mass or papal monarchy, etc. then the story might be more believable. In fact "the 12 Days" is just one of a number of similar counting songs found in almost every European language.

Counting Rhyme for Children

Indeed, virtually every historical source going back 150 years classifies "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as a "counting rhyme" for children. One of the earliest published versions appeared in J.O. Halliwell's The Nursery Rhymes of England, 1842 edition, in which the author explained, "Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. This accumulative process is a favorite with children; in early writers, such as Homer, the repetition of messages, etc., pleases on the same principle."

We find an example of the rhyme put to precisely this use in Thomas Hughes' 1862 novel The Ashen Faggot: A Tale of Christmas. The scene is a family gathering on Christmas Eve:

When all the raisins had been extracted and eaten, and the salt had been duly thrown into the burning spirit, and everybody had looked sufficiently green and cadaverous, a cry for forfeits arose. So the party sat down round Mabel on benches brought out from under the table, and Mabel began,—

"The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge and a pear-tree;
The second day of Christmas my true love sent to me two turtle-doves, a partridge, and a pear-tree;

The third day of Christmas my true love sent to me three fat hens, two turtle-doves, a partridge, and a pear-tree;
The fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me four ducks quacking, three fat hens, two turtle-doves, a partridge, and a pear-tree;
The fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me five hares running, four ducks quacking, three fat hens, two turtle-doves, a partridge, and a pear-tree."

And so on. Each day was taken up and repeated all round; and for every breakdown (except by little Maggie, who struggled with desperately earnest round eyes to follow the rest correctly, but with very comical results), the player who made the slip was duly noted down by Mabel for a forfeit.

Hughes' tale also illustrates the variability of the lyric itself — "a partridge and a pear tree," "three fat hens," "four ducks quacking," etc.  While we're sure some sort of religious meaning could be extracted from each of those phrases, Hughes' divergent rendition, not to mention other pesky variants down through the years, undermine McKellar and Stockert's Catholic interpretation. For example, many pre-20th-century versions we've read mention "canary birds," and others opt for "colly birds" or "collie birds" (an archaic name for blackbirds), where the modern version lists "calling birds," a symbol, according to McKellar and Stockert, of the four gospels.

Fertility symbols

Far from finding any religious significance in "The Twelve Days of Christmas," some scholars, including University of Massachusetts classics professor Edward Phinney, argue that it's first and foremost a love song. "If you think of all the things being presented," he said in a 1990 newspaper interview, "you realize they're all gifts from a lover to a woman. Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding."

And then, of course, there are the decidedly unbiblical fertility symbols — the partridge in a pear tree, for example. "The pear is equivalent to the heart and the partridge is a famous aphrodisiac," Phinney said. How about those six geese a-laying! Seven of the song's 12 verses feature birds of various kinds, Phinney observed, all of them symbols of fertility. "The whole song seems to me to point to a festival of joy and love more appropriate to a secular holiday like Valentine's Day or May Day than a religious holiday," he said.

Codes and Catechisms

Do we know for a fact that "underground" catechism songs for Catholics were common, or even existed at all during or after the English Reformation? The evidence for it is slim. Hugh McKellar mentions a few examples of accumulative catechism songs ("Green grow the rushes, O," and "Go where I send thee") and "coded" nursery rhymes ("Sing a song of sixpence" and "Rock-a-by, baby"), but none of them really qualify in terms of being both underground (i.e., having a hidden meaning) and Catholic. If there were other songs that fit the bill, McKellar failed to cite them. Stockert didn't try.

Is it impossible that the "The Twelve Days of Christmas" could have originated as a religious song whose covert meaning was simply forgotten by the mid-1800s? No, but William Studwell, for one, still doesn't buy it. "If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song," he told the Religion News Service. "It's a derivative, not the source."

Sources and further reading:

• "10 Minutes with ... William Studwell." Religion News Service, 1 December 2008.
• Eckenstein, Lina. Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes. London: Duckworth, 1906.
Fasbinder, Joe. "There's a Reason for All Those Birds." Southeast Missourian, 12 December 1990.
• Harmon, Elizabeth. "Carols Become the Subject of Serious Study." Daily Herald, 24 December 1998.
• Hughes, Thomas. The Ashen Faggot: A Tale of ChristmasMacmillan's magazine, vol. 5, 1862.
• Kelly, Joseph F. The Origins of Christmas. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004.
• McKellar, Hugh D. "How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas." U.S. Catholic, December 1979.
• McKellar, Hugh D. "The Twelve Days of Christmas." The Hymn, October 1994.
• Stockert, Fr. Hal. "The Twelve Days of Christmas: An Underground Catechism." Catholic Information Network, 17 December 1995.
• Stockert, Fr. Hal. "Origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas.", 15 December 2000.